Big Eyes, Furry Bellies: A Guide to Feeding Small Exotic Mammals

Not everyone’s best friend is a dog or cat, of course. More and more people are choosing to adopt small exotic mammals; however, these charismatic creatures have special needs that many owners don’t learn about until after adopting. It is important to do your research to understand the most appropriate diet for your pet. To help you, CEDARCREST Animal Clinic’s veterinarians have created a guide for the specific nutritional needs of ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and sugar gliders.

Ferret Nutrition

Ferrets are obligate carnivores, meaning their bodies need meat to survive. Don’t try to turn your ferret vegetarian—their digestive tract can’t process most veggies, and they can get very sick without the proteins provided by meat. Because cats are also obligate carnivores, you may have been told that it is okay to feed cat food to your ferret; however, this is not good advise. Ferrets have different dietary needs than cats and can develop health problems from cat food, like painful bladder stones! Fortunately, several pet food companies have developed great ferret specific diets. Good quality ferret food will list meat, such as chicken or lamb, as the first and most prominent ingredient and try to avoid ferret foods that list grains or corn.

In case you hadn’t noticed, ferrets have frenetic energy and like to be active. Their quick metabolism means they generally eat between 8 and 10 times each day! So, you should have food available to them at all times. Don’t worry about turning your pet into a glutton; typically, ferrets eat small meals at a time. As long as you regularly let your pet out of its cage for playtime, it will maintain a healthy weight. If your ferret seems a little chubby around wintertime, don’t panic, this is natural! They should begin to slim down again toward springtime. If possible, give your ferret a variety of food, perhaps by periodically switching from one brand of high-quality ferret food to another. Your ferret will also appreciate the occasional piece of fresh meat!

One thing we recommend that you avoid is giving your ferret excessive treats! It’s always fun to see your pet light up with excitement, but be sure to hand treats out sparingly to keep it from becoming overweight. Here’s a tip: One treat ferrets adore are liquid fatty acid products, which you can apply to their food, or allow your ferret to lick it off your finger. You can get these at many area pet stores and can improve coat quality, but like other treats, should not be overdone.

Rabbit Nutrition

Contrary to what pop culture has taught us, rabbits don’t survive on carrots alone! You might be surprised to learn that the most important part of a rabbit’s diet is hay. Approximately 80% of a rabbit’s diet should consist of unsoiled hay, which should be made available to them at all times.

Hay serves several important purposes.  For one, hay helps with intestinal motility, which allows the digestive tract to digest and absorb nutrients. Also, a rabbit’s teeth never stop growing and the rough texture of hay helps to wear down the teeth so they do not become too long. The best kinds of hay to feed your rabbit includes timothy hay, orchard grass, and other tall grasses. Be careful not to go too heavy on the alfalfa hay, though; It has less fiber than other hays and a lot more calcium and protein. Too much can cause most adult rabbits to develop urinary or kidney problems. The exception to this rule would be pregnant, or growing rabbits, which can benefit from alfalfa’s balance of nutrients.

In addition to hay, your rabbit should be eating plenty of pellets which provide essential vitamins and minerals. Pellets should make up 10-15% of the diet, which is equivalent to 1/8 to 1/4 of a cup of pellets daily for the average rabbit. Don’t rely on pellets alone, they are way too high in calories and don’t have enough fiber that your rabbit needs to stay healthy.

Supplementing your rabbit’s diet with fresh vegetables and treats is also important. For vegetables, feed them mostly dark, leafy greens. You can also mix in some peppers, peas, carrots, or other crunchy treats. Vegetables should be fresh and washed or pesticide free. They should make up about 5% of your rabbit’s total diet. Treats, such as bits of dried, unsweetened fruits like papaya, pineapple, banana, and apples, can also be given to your rabbit in small quantities.

One last thing: You might notice your rabbit eating its own feces. Don’t worry; this is natural! Rabbits can’t digest their food in one go, so they produce special, soft feces called cecotropes. Eating this special poo allows the bacteria in the rabbit’s digestive system to break down indigestible fiber into nutrition that the rabbit can utilize. Remember, the cecotropes are soft, so any hard fecal droppings in your pet’s cage are waste and should be removed.

Guinea Pig Nutrition

Guinea pigs should be fed similar to rabbits, with lots of hay supplemented with specially formulated guinea pig pellets. Guinea pigs can have a larger percentage of pellets in their diet than rabbits, but should also have unlimited access to clean hay.  Try to feed your guinea pig high fiber hays, like timothy hay and orchard grass, and avoid high calcium hays like alfalfa.

Like humans, guinea pigs require Vitamin C in their diet. Guinea pig food has some Vitamin C in it, but the amount varies with brand and how long it has been on the shelf or opened. Therefore, it is recommended that you supplement your guinea pig’s daily diet with natural sources of Vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables, such as with oranges, bell peppers, or tomatoes. Also, many local pet stores carry Vitamin C supplements that can be dissolved in your guinea pig’s drinking water, but because Vitamin C breaks down quickly, make sure to refresh the water and the Vitamin C drops every make sure your guinea pig is getting vitamins you’re providing.

Like many pets, guinea pigs benefit from food variety in their diets; however, they can become very attached to one type of food. For this reason, it is helpful to expose young guinea pigs to several types of food before they develop a strong preference. This is not only better for their health, but can be helpful if you need to switch food when a certain brand becomes unavailable.

Chinchilla Nutrition

Chinchillas should be provided with free choice hay at all times, just like guinea pigs and rabbits. Remember, high fiber hays like timothy hay and orchard grass are best, and alfalfa hay which is low in fiber and high in calcium should be avoided. Adult chinchillas should also receive approximately 1 to 2 tablespoons of commercial chinchilla pellets every day. Pregnant or young chinchillas, who are still growing, have higher nutritional needs, so they require a little more food.

Chinchillas typically eat at night, and if you are an early riser or a night owl, you may find your chinchilla eating their own feces. Don’t worry, though! Like rabbits, chinchillas produce a special type of soft feces called cecotropes, which when eaten helps the digestive process by breaking down indigestible fiber into nutrients. The harder fecal droppings are waste and should be promptly removed from your chinchilla’s habitat.

Sugar Glider Nutrition

Sugar gliders are omnivores, which means they eat a mix of plant and animal products. In the wild, their diet consists of a variety of nectars, pollens, insects, and fruits; however, while we generally know what they eat, biologists have yet to decode their exact nutrient requirements. For this reason, it is difficult to find a commercially available food that will meet sugar gliders dietary needs, which is why they are one of the more challenging small exotic mammals to properly feed.

In general, sugar gliders need a diet that is 50% nectar and 50% insect-based. This diet can be supplemented with 1 teaspoon of chopped fruits and a few grains of bee pollen each week.  Nectar can be purchased off-the-shelf from retailers of pet supplies, but it is also easy to make nectar at home that provides a better variety of nutrients. Below is a recipe for a homemade nectar mix called Leadbeater’s Mix, which we suggest be made fresh once or twice a week and refrigerated or frozen between use to prevent spoilage.

Leadbeater’s Mix

  • 10 tablespoons warm water
  • 10 tablespoons honey
  • 1 hard-boiled egg without the shell
  • 1 tablespoon powdered or flaked baby cereal
  • 1 teaspoon vitamin and mineral supplement

Mix together until smooth. The mixture can be frozen in an ice cube tray to prevent spoiling. One thawed “glider cube” can be fed per day per sugar glider.

The insect portion of your sugar glider’s diet can be supplied using a commercially available insectivore, or sugar glider food. Live insects, like mealworms, crickets, superworms, silkworms, or other appropriately sized insects, can also be fed to your sugar glider as a replacement to their sugar glider food or as a supplement to their diet.  Be aware that It is important that all insects fed to your sugar glider are gut-loaded, which means the insects were fed a nutritious diet which they will pass along to your pet.

If you have questions about your exotic small pet’s nutrition, feel free to contact us to schedule a consultation.

CEDARCREST Animal Clinic provides medical and surgical care for every stage of your pet’s life including preventive wellness care exams and vaccines, spays/neuters, and a variety of specialized care for your dog, cat, avian, or exotic. We are home to the only veterinarian practitioner in Virginia to be double Boarded in Avian and Canine/Feline care and provide care for birds, small mammals, and reptiles of all sorts! Plus, we are home to Virginia’s most exclusive dog boarding resort that includes heated floors, an expansive play area, and even webcams so you can watch your pet while you’re away. We’re located in Fishersville, Virginia, and serve Augusta County and surrounding areas including Waynesboro, Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Charlottesville. 

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